Friday, January 13, 2006

under my thumb

My musical activities this week have been taken over by an assignment I've had to do for my master's course. As an introduction to one of the basic research methods in ethnomusicological study, our task was to transcribe a piece of non-western music into some kind of written notation. Before the advent of recorded sound this was the only way that field workers had to document musical styles they discovered in indigenous communities in the developing world.

The mbira is a kind of "thumb piano" (as they're popularly known in European and North America) which I've been learning to play for about six months. They're played in various forms in many parts of Africa but the particular instrument I have been learning is played by the Shona people who live in the northern part of Zimbabwe in the southern half of the continent. Mbira music is used as an important part of the bira religious ceremony in which the Shona consult the spirits of their ancestors and ask for their guidance in everyday matters. The trance-inducing properties of the music help mediums to become possessed by the spirits.

Although playing the mbira is not technically too difficult (and I haven't become possessed by any hostile spirits yet either!), the sounds produced are actually quite complex, particularly when several instruments play together. So it made a good case study to write about and I found out a lot of things I hadn't picked up while learning to play the instrument.

- More info about the mbira and Shona music ( website)
- More info about Zimbabwe (BBC website)
- Some recordings (Catalogue of the British Library Sound Archive)

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